Growing up as the fourth of seven children, it took a lot to get noticed in Johnny Mathis’ household — but everyone took notice whenever he sang in church. His voice was stunning from his earliest years in small-town Texas and San Francisco, so much so that his father went to incredible lengths to fuel his interest in music.
Clem Mathis had worked briefly as a musician back in Texas playing the piano and singing on stage, and taught his son many songs and routines, starting with “My Blue Heaven” when Johnny was 8. Johnny was the most eager music student in the family, and sang in the church choir, school functions, community events, for visitors in their home, as well as amateur shows in the San Francisco area.
That boyhood devotion has paid off handsomely for Mathis, who has sold 350 million records worldwide, earned five Grammy nominations and been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame during a career that has lasted for more than 60 years since his breakthrough in 1955. He will be performing a rare concert at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium next Thursday, May 16, in a night that will include dozens of the most romantic songs of the pop music era.
“From the time I can remember my dad sang, and of course he always invited my brothers and sisters to join him, but I was the only one who showed any interest,” recalls Mathis, whose brother Ralph later became a popular singer in the Los Angeles area, with a longtime residency at the popular former nightclub Jax Bar & Grill in Glendale. “He [his father] showed up at this apartment we lived in with a bunch of sticks one night, dragged it all into the little living room and spent hours and hours at night doing something and we woke up the next morning and he had constructed a piano.
“From that time on, I was hooked on singing and listening to my dad who was my best pal, the beginning of a wonderful life not only musically but a connection with my father who is always fresh in my mind,” Mathis adds. “He was a wonderful, wonderful man who with my mom raised seven children in a tiny house. We never wanted for anything, especially music.”
When Johnny was 13, Clem helped his son land one of the best vocal teachers in the Bay Area, Connie Cox, leading to six years of learning vocal scales and exercises, voice production, classical and operatic skills. At the same time, Mathis was also renowned for his remarkable athletic abilities at George Washington High School, where he was a star athlete on the track and field team as a high jumper and hurdler and played on the basketball team.
Enrolling at San Francisco State College (now University) in 1954, Mathis intended to be an English and physical education teacher and set a school record on the high jump. Coaches with the Olympics came calling, and he seemed ready to pursue that opportunity fully when he suddenly was signed by a manager for his singing and she convinced Columbia Records to offer him a contract at the age of 19.
“I think if you ask most kids what they do, they have time to do everything because you have energy when you’re young,” Mathis says, when asked how he managed to excel at both sports and music while engaged in college. “I was also president of my student body. That was what I did, buoyed by the enthusiasm voice teachers and coaches showed on my behalf. They were excited for me to participate and that was the foundation for my learning, especially music. I was a very, very lucky person.”
Mathis, 83, had already fallen in love with the standards sung by jazzy stars like Lena Horne and Nat King Cole during his forays into San Francisco’s nightclubs with his father as a teen. Thus, it wasn’t difficult to slip into the role of romantic crooner at a time when the musical tastes of his teenage peers were quickly shifting to the revved-up energy of rock and roll.
He was summoned to New York City in 1956 to record his first album at the incredibly young age of 19, with his family banking that if the recording industry didn’t work out he could always resume his college studies.
That first album was a collection of jazz-oriented renditions of popular stand ards titled “Johnny Mathis: A New Sound In Popular Song.” The album enjoyed only moderate success because jazz vocal albums were not good sellers, but Mathis got a second shot that same year when he was paired with mega-producer Mitch Miller.
Miller favored using Mathis’ voice to sing soft, romantic ballads, and that instinct paid off when the singer recorded smash hits “Wonderful, Wonderful” and “It’s Not For Me to Say.” His first No.1, “Chances Are,” followed shortly afterward.
“Most of the decisions I made about what I would sing were because of the timbre and quality of my voice,” explains Mathis. “I had the capabilities of singing very high and low, loud and soft, because of my voice lessons. We needed songs that would challenge me and the pop songs weren’t, so my voice teacher got me involved in classical music.
“We concentrated on singing songs that taxed my vocal qualities, as opposed to what was on the radio,” he adds. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to sing pop music, but we wanted to enhance my vocal qualities with opera. From the time I was 13 years old in voice lessons we spent a lot of time singing opera. I ended up singing the pop songs of the day, but I did get the essence of vocal quality and using your voice to its fullest extent by my singing classical music.”
Mathis really took off when he appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in June 1957, resulting in millions of copies sold for both his albums and singles. The demand for “the velvet voice,” as he came to be known, was so great that he often had four albums at a time on the Billboard charts, and within two years Columbia Records released his first greatest-hits album. The album set a Guinness World Record by appearing for 490 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Top Albums chart.
“When you’re young like that, you expect to go to the moon and if you get halfway you’re happy,” he laughs. “Yes, I had a lot of success. When I made my recordings, I was by myself in New York working with my producers, but I didn’t have any success for about a year. My parents sent me money occasionally, but they didn’t have much.
“If I hadn’t had the success with singing records, I would have gone back home to San Francisco and started over again, but I was very, very fortunate,” he adds. “From the first hit, it just went on and on and on. It has been a blessing for me.”
Johnny Mathis will perform at 8 p.m next Thursday, May 16 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. Tickets are $59 to $99. Visit ticketmaster.com.